Waiting for the Other Foot to Land

I managed a PC store many years ago when PCs were so new that most people didn’t have a clue what to do with them. In fact, that’s the question potential customers asked me first. What saved the industry since there was very little software out there was the spreadsheet program, VisiCalc and later Lotus 123. I would ask the businessman (it was almost always a man) some business questions and then craft a spreadsheet template to handle some aspect of that business. As an example, I had a customer who owned some gas stations. I showed him how to keep running calculations of the number of gallons of gas pumped, his price, and his profit. Since the spreadsheet instantly did the calculations, he thought it was a miracle.

Fast forward a bit. I became an expert on the subject of local area networks (LANs). In fact, I answered for a while to “Stan the LAN Man.” In any case, year after year the IT press would proclaim the new year as the “Year of the LAN.” The reporters forecast incredible growth because suddenly companies would grasp just how useful a computer network would be to their businesses. Of course, it took around five years for the market to explode. I wrote one of the all-time best selling books on LANs (5 editions and several foreign editions), and yet almost no one grasped the significance of LANs for years after products became available.

Fast forward again. Today everyone seemed wedded to their smartphones. The hottest button right now is mobile payments. Yet, while there are so many startups that I can’t count them, the industry hasn’t quite lived up to the hype yet. Of course, it’s immensely complicated because of the all the moving parts that have to work together SECURELY to satisfy the banks, the merchants, and the customers. Yet. there is progress in the field. I suspect that this market also will explode, but long after some of the early prognosticators thought.

Market researchers are part of the problem. I know because that was yet another one of my several careers. The way the game is played is that a market analyst writes a report predicting the growth of a new market. No research report sells if the analyst predicts just luke warm growth. If that’s the case, why should a company care enough about that market to buy such a report. So, many research companies tout reports that predict enormous growth. While the companies I worked for tried to keep a tally of just how accurate its analysts were, many analyst firms specialize on outrageous forecasts. One reason is that startups buy such reports and take them to investment bankers to prove that their market is about to explode.

I once had a major investment bank as my customer. All the investment banker wanted was a couple of hours a month to run other companies’ and research analysts’ forecasts and technology claims past me and have me do a reality check for him. So, no wonder most media think next year will be the year of XYZ. They’ve been reading the press releases of market researchers who don’t keep tallies on their accuracy but just want to sell lots of reports.

I’m in the writing business now, and it’s an interest contrast to the technology business. It’s more like the NFL.  In the NFL, when a football team wins the Super Bowl, every other team tries to copy its methodology. So, for example, now that the Seattle Seahawks have won in part because of very tall corners who play bump and run defense, other teams are rushing to hire the same type of personnel.

In the writing world, some writers jump into genres just because they are popular. I can’t believe the public wants more vampire books or more books about dominance and submission, but apparently that’s what many writers believe. They are always driving 100 miles per hour while looking into their rear view mirrors. Publishers look at what’s currently popular and ask for more until they no longer can sell that type of product. Since traditional publishers take a year or more to publish a book, it’s likely they’ll always be a step behind the readers.

I tend to try to push the envelope in my books. Silent Partner, coming out in May from Pen-L Press, welds together a police procedure format along with a paranormal element, a ghost. I can’t tell you how many literary agents told me they couldn’t sell the concept even though I promised them that the ghost doesn’t upset the rules that in a police procedure novel, the detective has to solve the crime logically so that readers can understand and appreciate the logic and feel satisfied that the writer didn’t play any tricks on them.

Since I already have written a sequel to the book, I suspect I’ll be waiting for the Year of the Police Procedure Novel with a Paranormal Element for far longer than I should have to do so because trends always take longer than you think before they become real trends. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and hope that one of my books catches the public’s fancy and sales ratchet up.

By the way, Audible now is selling an audio version of Journey to a Different Planet read by a wonderful actor. If you have kids who love Minecraft and planning a trip. consider taking the audio version along to make the miles go faster.

Living Through a Technology Seismic Shift

Years ago I was a very early advocate of a technology known as local area networks (LANs). In fact, people called me “Stan, the LAN man.” The problem was that most “normal” people didn’t have a clue what a LAN was. When someone at a party asked what I did and I started to explain, I’d see their eyes glaze over as they desperately looked for ways to escape me. Now trust me, I wasn’t like the Ancient Mariner. I didn’t grab people by the lapel and force technology down their throats. I was excited, though, about what I saw as a technology that would change the world.

Similarly, I managed a computer store when PCs first became available commercially. Once again, as a very early adopter, I heard the same questions over and over again: “Why would I want one in my house? What could I do with it?” The answers were so obvious to me that I had a hard time understanding why people even hesitated. That was true even though there was very little software available.

The computer revolution changed our lives. Young people have trouble understanding how there ever was a time when people didn’t have computers. As far as LANs, people now have them in their homes and routinely talk about technology such as routers. When you go through a technology revolution, it seems like one minute only early adopters embrace the technology; suddenly everyone seems to embrace it. The only people out of step are the Luddites or very late technology adopters.

The same process repeats itself over and over again. My son is an expert in mobile payment technology. Many non-technology oriented people shake their heads when he tries to explain the future’s promise for a technology where people can walk in stores, purchase items by flashing their phones, and leave with the items without ever talking to a salesperson or cashier.

Think of how the ways people use their phones have changed in a very short period of time. One of my friends had a garage sale and decided to get rid of some old AT&T black handsets with rotary dialing. Teenagers stared at the phones, trying to figure out how people dialed. Remember when people used to laugh at the idea that someone would spend a couple of hundred dollars for a “smart” phone? “Who needs one when I have a computer?” they said. Now, some people spend a lot of time typing email notes on their phone’s very small keyboard and think nothing of it.

My point is that when you are in a time period when technology is rapidly changing, you don’t really notice because models change gradually as they add more sophisticated features. It’s only when we look back over several years that we’re struck by how much things have changed.

So, some far out technology such as Google Glass may seem completely ridiculous and unnecessary at a price point approaching $2000 and limited features. Imagine, though, what could happen in five years if the price dropped to a few hundred dollars and the features multiplied.

If you want a good laugh, watch the old Jetsons’ cartoons or a number of old science fiction movies. The technology that is supposed to be so advanced is really laughable. Why? It’s because people have a hard time breaking free of existing models of how things work. Take personal airplanes, for example. Why do they have to look like cars? Take weapons. Why do they have to look like guns that resemble what cowboys used in the old west?

Take the future phone. Why does it have to resemble a phone? It’s just as likely that people will wear their phones and computers instead of staring at a handheld device with a tiny screen. It’s entirely possible that people will live in a virtual reality world where they blink and see a display the size of their entire viewing area. When they need to type rather than simply speak or think their words, a virtual keyboard will be a much more efficient way to work.

One of my friends is a scientist. He tells me that his company now is selling a mechanism that allows paralyzed people to think their commands and have their body respond. In other words, a paraplegic could think a command for his arms to move, and they will do so with the help of a mechanical device. Scientists have learned how to identify brain wave patterns for certain commands and convert those patterns into wireless commands to a device that lifts the arm. Think a few years ahead. Why not simply think your message and have your brain’s wireless connection to the Internet transmit it?

There’s no privacy today. Imagine a world where what you think could be instantly sent digitally. We’ll have to develop efficient filters to avoid today’s equivalent mistake of accidentally pressing “reply all.” Now, imagine the future hacker focused on identifying brain wave patterns of specific people. The very idea opens up the possibility of commercial espionage as well as governmental espionage. It also offers the possibility of several new growth industries to help our economy,

One day we worry about domestic spying while the next day we suddenly realize we have to worry about our naked thoughts exposed to any hacker with the ability to read brain waves. What we didn’t notice was that we were living through a major technology shift.

The Slow Death of Microsoft, HP, Cisco, and Intel: Where Do We Go From Here?

I had a relative who made his fortune opening television stores. In those heady days of early color TV, he made his mark by being The Expert when it came to RCA color TVs. Of course he commanded a premium for that knowledge. He prospered until Japanese manufacturers entered the market. Try finding an American manufacturer of TVs today, and you’ll find the search futile.

The world changes right before our eyes, yet few of us are consciously aware of it at the time. It’s only in retrospect that we are aware. Remember the boom days of the PC industry during the 1990s? Intel and Microsoft formed a partnership that resulted in growth that probably astonished their own executives. Of course it helped that Apple didn’t know what the hell it was doing. John Scully will go down as clueless in the history books because he chose NOT to license the Apple to other manufacturers. Instead, he kept margins high and sales low.

When I was a technology analyst and consultant, I marveled at how much discontent there was among Cisco’s customers. They grumbled while they continued to pay what they called the “Cisco premium” for equipment that could be purchased much cheaper from competitors. Of course, because Cisco was a proprietary system, you couldn’t really mix and match manufacturers even though rival products far out performed Cisco products. Customers confided to me that they were “in too deep to get out.”

During the boom days I offered some advice to the CEO of HP which she ignored. I suggested that the major advantage HP had was that it offered a wide range of different kinds of equipment that was far broader than its competition. Why not create an advantage for customers who bought different kinds of HP equipment by making them work so well together that customers would want to buy all HP equipment. HP continued selling its product as if they were unrelated. The result was that HP lost its short-lived market advantage in PCs, never found traction in the consumer market, and staggered in the printer marketplace. Today the company is fighting for its identity. It used to be known for “high prices and high performance.” Today, there really isn’t anything special to distinguish its equipment.

Microsoft never saw the Internet coming and then was late to the tablet market. Its mobile products never took off, and now people have viable choices other than purchasing Windows-based machines and running Office. It just reorganized, but to me, it looks like rearranging the deck chairs on a very well known ship that ran into trouble.

Big companies don’t collapse over night; they die by a thousand cuts, bleeding  over a number of years that are filled with layoffs and reorganizations. Take Ebay. It looked invincible for a while until other companies offered auction sites that cost less. It turned to PayPal to keep its profits up, but today PayPal faces a lot of far more nimble competitors.

My point is that these changes happen all the time, but we don’t pay much attention unless we’re playing the stock market and worrying about our investments. I have a number of ex-colleagues who used to be analysts and experts that relied on these huge companies for consulting projects. Many of these people now have one-person consulting firms and are barely getting by. The many new startups on the block just don’t have money for high-priced consultants.

I used to have a very good record for predicting the future, particularly in technology. My current prediction is that mobile technology will become not just ubiquitous, but built-in. People will accessorize with mobile products, whether that means a built-in Internet chip in their heads, Google type glasses, or small earrings that serve as telephone receivers. Virtual reality gloves will mean that people will have access to a keyboard and monitor the size of everything they view. Devices won’t need much memory, because the cloud will be available everywhere, buttressed by very high-speed wireless links. That means that almost everyone will be connected all the time.

I read recently that 25% of people under 30 text while making love. It will be awhile before you see that in a movie, but it is happening, and it does reflect how our culture is changing.  There won’t be any privacy anywhere.

When you think of that kind of future, it makes reading Pride and Prejudice even more enjoyable because it hearkens back to a time when relationships developed over months and years instead of minutes and privacy was cherished. If Jane Austen wrote her novel today, her heroine would be tweeting the entire time. She would Google men who interested her and spend time looking at their Facebook pages.

So, while you might think of the huge technology companies as dinosaurs who changed too slowly to flourish in a changing landscape, note the effect of changing technology not just on companies but on individuals. We’re far different today than we were in the 1990s. We have far less patience, demand far faster responses from everyone we know, and expect Wi-Fi everywhere we go. We expect technology to cost less every year and do far more. We want our technology to be intuitive and not require a steep learning curve. We’re not willing to wait while a Microsoft, an IBM, or Intel decides what is best for us. We want a manufacturer to prove its superiority and not really smugly tell us that we’re trapped because we already have so much of its proprietary equipment, we can’t economically move to a different manufacturer.

Not all big technology companies fail to adapt. IBM used to be known for its mainframe computers, but today it is a software and services company that is doing very well. It was nimble enough to morph into a different company fast enough to stay relevant.

The pace of life is much faster now than in any other time in history. We expect instant response when we place an order online. Amazon has been experimenting with same day delivery as a result. We expect our movies to catch our interest in the first five minutes. No more slow-developing French or Swedish movies for us! We expect authors to capture our attention within the first 10 pages. Many literary agents don’t read past the first 10 pages when determining whether or not to add a client.

That’s one reason why cartoon-like superheroes are so popular in movies today. Because people know about them from earlier movies or from reading about them in comic books, there’s a comfort level and familiarity with these characters which means that viewers will give stories a bit more time to develop. They already know all about the superheroes, so producers don’t have to provide much background; they can get right to the explosions, chases, and fights that make these movies so popular abroad. European and Asian distributors love the fact that such movies require such easy dubbing. Who cares if the superhero’s lips aren’t in synch with his French when the camera is focusing on the superhero fighting a super villain?

Of course it is possible to move too quickly. If you speed-read a novel and then can’t remember the name of the main character, you’re not really reading. If you Tweet constantly, then you’re not really living your life; instead, your making the entire world a voyeur, forced to watch you go through the motions of living. If our film industry and our publishing industry are reduced down to the lowest common denominators because people have little patience with character development, then we’ve lost something very important. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a beep and can’t determine which of the half dozen mobile devices you own is trying to remind you of something urgent.

 

Seeing The Forest And Not Just The Trees

I saw a documentary entitled “Manhunt” last night. It’s the story of several female CIA analysts, experts in pattern recognition, who helped track down Osama Ben Laden. The theme is how most people just see thousands of details while a few are able to see patterns. What makes the task harder is that details keep coming in that alter whatever working hypothesis is in place. One key takeaway of the movie is that being an analyst can be a very lonely job because if you’re ahead of the conventional pack, you tend to be a target.

For many years and for many companies I served as an industry analyst. It’s a fascinating job because you get paid to learn something new every day. I’ve never worked with so many brilliant people. Industry analysts are experts in specific areas of technology and charged with predicting the future. Now predicting what will happen five years from now in an area like cell phones or tablets is difficult enough, but these people have to be able to actually forecast demand in the form of how many units manufacturers will ship. Our major technology companies base their budgets and marketing plans in part on these numbers if they trust the analyst’s ability and wisdom.

I distinctly remember one time when Apple hired me to forecast demand in a few key industries. What struck me was that these were industries where the company was already strong. Why not look at numbers from other industries and look for clues? In other words, they weren’t thinking outside the box and forecasting other places where they might grow. I should add that this was before Steve Jobs returned to the company.

It’s very easy to think inside the box and assume that the future will be very much like the present, only sleeker. Think of the old Jetsons’ cartoons.  People traveled in personal airplanes that looked an awful lot like cars of the 1960s as an example.

I spend most of my time working on novels nowadays, but the writing is very like my analyst days in many respects. Instead of studying thousands of details and trying to see a pattern as I did as an analyst, I reverse the process and create hundreds of details, hoping the reader will see patterns so that the novel’s conclusion, while hopefully a surprise, will make perfect sense when the reader thinks about details that might have been missed or dismissed as unimportant with the first reading.

I’ve written a detective mystery entitled SILENT PARTNER that now is being evaluated by some publishers. I’ll let everyone know when it finally is published so you can evaluate for yourself just how successful or unsuccessful I’ve been in providing a pattern that makes sense and, perhaps, in forcing you to think outside the box.

A Look at Technology in Our Lives in 2023

I’d like to put on my technology analyst hat for a few minutes and look at what our daily lives will be like in ten years. This isn’t science fiction. What I used to do for a living was to look at current trends and the state of current technology including technology in the labs and extrapolate. It’s not as scientific as analyzing cancer vaccines, but it is far from being science fiction or witchcraft.

Do you remember the household technology names ten years ago? Microsoft and Dell were riding high. Apple was gaining minor market share in the business world but starting to make serious inroads in the consumer space. A decade later we see Dell going private and trying hard to be relevant. The company is playing Hamlet and debating whether it’s a hardware company or a services company, a sure sign that it’s in serious trouble. Microsoft has lots of cash, but people aren’t embracing Windows 8. It still has such a greedy attitude towards licensing that its products are severely overpriced.

Apple has become a giant, but that often happens before a decline. The seeds of its own destruction have already been sown. Remember all the college kids who wore white ear buds, happy to be identified with such cool products? Today, many of them have already migrating to Samsung products. It’s their parents who now think of Apple as “cool.” Don’t get me wrong; I live in an Apple-centric house.  Unfortunately, my wife and I are not Apple’s main demographic target. We’re likely to stay with Apple products because of their ease-of-use, but that won’t help the company. It has gone from being led by a visionary to being led by a bean counter. The results will be similar to what happened when John Scully took over Apple several years ago. Paid his bonus based on profits rather than market growth, the ex-Pepsi boss chose to not license Apple products to keep his margins high. He succeeded but lost the PC market for a decade.

A decade from now we’ll live in a ubiquitous high-speed wireless world. Rather than walk around with tablets, we’ll carry a small processor or even wear one. We’ll be able to use virtual reality technology to see a screen the size of our peripheral vision. We’ll type without a keyboard using the same technology.

The video we view will become more like holograms, freed from the physical limitations of a screen. In effect, watching a movie in the home will be like watching the characters perform right in front of you. That might actually have a negative impact on live theater.

The wireless world we will live in will also mean that we’ll carry our own health monitoring equipment with us. Doctors will be able to monitor our vital signs remotely and even step up the controlled doses of medicine we’ll be receiving from pumps embedded in our bodies.

Privacy will be completely gone except for hotels that advertise that they have cones of silence for those who truly want to get away. The stress people feel a decade from now will come from the oppression of their social networks. You won’t even have to tweet where you are because your various circles of friends will be able to zero in on your exact location.  Not letting someone into your closest circle will be today’s equivalent of not responding favorably to a request to Friend someone.

Visual recognition technology will be good enough and fast enough for salespeople to be able to point their miniature cameras at someone and have the database in the Cloud respond with contact information. People will chronicle their lives in video clips. Of course, no one need ever be disconnected from the NET. Many people will have wireless connectivity chips implanted so that they can use brain commands to perform basic computing and navigation commands. Sound far-fetched? The technology already is here.

Depending on your perspective, I’m either presenting an idyllic vision or a dystopic vision. If you enjoy sitting down and reading a book in peace, then I can guess your response. Similarly, if you prize slowly developing a relationship with someone and gradually learning about them, then I can guess how you view this future as well. Today, we Google people before agreeing to date them. Imagine what we can learn about people a decade from now. We likely will be able to monitor our acquaintances let alone our friends on a minute by minute basis. We’ll be able to learn what they buy, who their friends are, where they are at any moment, and even where they went on their last date. At that point, finding yourself in a wireless-free zone in the middle of the Brazilian jungle might not seem so very bad.